A memory from Lee Smith

I was a writer at Newsweek in the second half of the ’60s decade.   On a slow summer weekend in August, 1969, I went to Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard to write a low-keyed seasonal story. Journalistic lore held that every big city newsman yearned to be owner and editor of a country newspaper, enabling a simple, independent and righteous life. James Reston was perhaps the foremost newspaperman of the era, executive editor of The New York Times and a columnist for the paper as well. What’s more, Reston had capped his career by living the dream. He had bought a little weekly, The Vineyard Gazette.

Through a drowsy Friday afternoon Reston and I sat on lawn chairs in his backyard and chatted about the challenges of being a country editor. The next morning my reporting was mostly finished,  but I poked around the Gazette’s office scribbling into my steno pad the dimensions of the flatbed press and noting the deep grooves in the oak plank floor. A Gazette reporter walked in and announced matter-of-factly that Senator Ted Kennedy was on the Vineyard and had loaned his car to a young woman who had driven it off the Chappaquiddick bridge and drowned.  Did I want to come with him and take a look at the scene? Sure I did.  Everything about the Kennedys fascinated readers, and Teddy might be president some day. So I went along, even though this accident seemed at the moment to be no more than a minor item for Newsweek – “Tragedy strikes near the Kennedys again.”

When we got to the bridge a tow truck was hauling the car out of the canal, the body of the victim still inside. Her name, we later learned, was Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who had been on the staff of a Robert Kennedy presidential campaign.  Gazette and I drove back into Edgartown and up to police headquarters to get the details.

Reston and a reporter for a Cape Cod newspaper (I’ve forgotten his name) were standing on the front porch. Senator Kennedy was inside giving a statement to Police Chief Arena. Reston and I went to the back door of the small, quaint police station  in case Kennedy came out that way, and that was where Reston told  me he thought Kennedy had been driving the car. “You have to be kidding,” I innocently exclaimed.  Suddenly, the door burst open and Kennedy and two or three aides brushed by me. “Senator, I’m Lee Smith from Newsweek,” I introduced myself to the back of a figure hurrying to the parking lot. “Chief Arena has a statement,” one of the senator’s aides replied over his shoulder.

Reston, Cape Cod, Gazette and I gathered around the Chief, who read a short statement from the senator –an astounding statement that changed the circumstances of American politics for years to come:  Teddy, not Mary Jo,  had  been driving the car when it went off the bridge; he escaped; she did not.

A Hollywood cliché of the 1940s showed reporters racing for the public pay phones when a big story broke, the verdict coming down in a sensational murder trial, say. In my career that never happened – except this once. The four of us sprinted half a block to pay phones fastened to rustic timbers. On most weeks I would have heard nothing but a recorded message, because Newsweek locked up tight at about noon on Saturday. But just this once, the magazine was being held open until Sunday, for this was the Saturday Apollo 11 was landing on the moon and the photo of Neil Armstrong’s giant step for mankind was going on the cover. I dictated Kennedy’s statement to a live editor.

Fortunately, none of we four journalists were in direct competition with one another, so we agreed to apportion the workload of discovery and pool the information. The chain of events might have seemed simple and self-evident in retrospect but it wasn’t at the time.  Where had they been before the accident? Why were they together? Where were they going? How did Teddy get out of the car? Why didn’t she? Teddy and his aides weren’t going to tell us; they were already fleeing the Vineyard.

Someone had heard that Mary Jo and some other young women had been staying together at a nearby motel. I went to the motel, where the manager confirmed that report and told me that the others had already checked out. He handed me a letter that one of Kennedy’s aides had sent the motel reserving the rooms for the young women, an important piece of evidence that made the case that Teddy and Mary Jo had not met coincidentally. The manager unwisely offered to let me keep the letter. Honorably, after noting the details in my steno pad I gave the letter back to him; police investigators might want it.

Calling real estate agents, Reston located the house in Chappaquiddick Teddy had rented. Cape Cod and I went to take a look. The house was empty and  locked.  My honor had vanished somewhere between the motel and the house, because Cape Cod and I plotted how to get in, ignoring the fact that journalistic privilege does not cover breaking into private homes. Fortunately, the owners showed up before we carried out our plan and gladly admitted us. There was nothing to be found, no signs of a party. So I reported simply that the house was as clean as guests are expected to leave a house. Another Newsweek journalist later insisted groundlessly that the Kennedy crew had “destroyed the evidence.”

We four worked ourselves into a state of exhaustion over the next few days. Interviewing the fire chief, I came up with the grim detail that there was an air bubble in the upside down car as it was dragged out of the water, which suggested that Mary Jo could have been alive for a while and might have survived if Teddy had dived back in to pull her out or had gone for help right away.

I won’t carry you once again through all the details of  the Chappaquiddick tragedy. They are well-recorded elsewhere. By Sunday morning Edgartown was overrun with hundreds of newsies with pads and pencils, still cameras and  television cameras. I could have persuaded Newsweek’s editors to let me stay on, to keep covering a story that went on for months. But it is not my temperament to become obsessed with a single story. I like variety. In self-critical moods I accuse myself of lacking focus and tenacity.


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2 comments on Chappy

  • Sandy Wiener

    Lee, a personal Newsweek story here, one of those many “What If’s” the entertain us later in life,

    Back in 1970 I was offered the posting by Newsweek of being their correspondent in Vietnam. I said Yes.

    But at the last moment, the visa of the current correspondent was unexpectedly renewed. Nothing for me then.

    I was offered a rewrite job in NYC, but this did not fit with my romantic vision of being a foreign correspondent.

    Of course, if I had gone, I would not be here writing this short account, Sandy

    By the way, a wonderful and long story about Chappaquiddick from your notes.

  • Don Watson

    Lee and reporters all:
    Could it be said that Chappaquiddick ruined Teddy Kennedy’s career…I think the case can be made that it certainly changed public acceptance of the man. Drink was certainly involved, so perhaps if it was not this tragedy, it would have been another. All amazing and well worth the retelling.

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